Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hapless sign, or hapless honker?

In today's After Deadline blog, NYT usage monitor Philip Corbett corrects this sentence:
The minimum fine is $350, higher if one of those hapless "DON’T HONK" signs are nearby.
Corbett says: "Make it 'if one … is nearby.'"

Fine -- but I have a different problem here: Can a sign be "hapless"? That is, "destitute of 'hap' or good fortune; unfortunate, unlucky, luckless" (OED)? Surely it's the driver who's unlucky; it would also be OK to say "if, unluckily, one of those DON'T HONK signs is nearby."

I don't mean that "hapless" can never be applied to things; "work performed on the hapless London Plane trees" is fine, since the trees are indeed having an unlucky streak. But (in my idiom, anyway) the New York sign isn't itself hapless just because its location is unlucky for some cabdriver.  


Caroline Starr Rose said...

I love this sort of thing. Thanks for getting the grammar gears rolling this morning.

John Cowan said...

I think that "hapless" is rather extended nowadays, though the dictionaries don't yet represent it, from people whose woes are a result of bad luck to those who suffer for their incompetence as well. Evidence:

The "hapless ump" here is clearly no good at his job.

The snapper to this article, "Hapless Fukushima Clean-Up Effort", charges TEPCO with failing to have proper plans for managing emergencies.

The "hapless 49ers" here were defeated by superior play, not bad luck.

Con Edison says the damage caused by this "hapless bus driver" was a matter of negligence, not merely happenstance.

Can The Republican Party Look More Hapless? means "Can they look more stupid?"

And so "hapless sign" just means "useless sign", "stupid sign", "@#$& sign". A stretch, but not a big one.

Kay L. Davies said...

No, a sign can hardly be lacking in "hap" (happiness or good fortune). "If one of the signs is near the hapless honker" would, of course, be correct, as would "If the hapless honker is near one of the signs."
I agree about the plane trees. Living things can be hapless (or helpless) but man-made metal objects cannot.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Anonymous said...

Looks like a case of someone using a word without knowing what it means because they like the way it sounds. My favorite example of this phenomenon is a fortune-cookie fortune I got once that said, "Alas! You are the apple of my eye." Alas!

T. Roger Thomas said...

I'm with you on this.

Ø said...

I, too, have known someone to totally misuse "alas", as a happy exclamation (in writing). It wasn't a fortune-cookie writer, either. It was an excellent teacher of young children, native English speaker. She just had somehow acquired a false idea about the word.

Ø said...

What the classic hidebound peevish curmudgeon might say here (that's not me, of course) is that there's a long history of good descriptive words getting dragged into unnecessary service as new ways of expressing approval or disapproval, blame or censure. What is happening to "hapless" seems like an example of this. Or maybe it's more about the influence of some other fun "-less"words, like "gormless", "feckless", and "clueless".

Rommel Peter Fernandes said...

I agree with you. Don't know what he meant by hapless.
Goa beach house

The Ridger, FCD said...

I can see how a sign might be hapless, but that might be because "hapless" doesn't mean "unlucky" to me so much as "feeble" or "incapable". I'm not sure I'd call one that made a traffic fine higher hapless. Unless the article implies that such signs are routinely ignored.

Thalamus said...

If an inanimate sign can be "stupid" as in: " I ran into the same stupid sign again!", I think it could also be hapless.